Image for From sketch to sea: diving into Wales’ underwater farming revolution

From sketch to sea: diving into Wales’ underwater farming revolution

With its ‘underwater gardens’ echoing a tradition of sustainably harvesting the local waters, we go beneath the waves at a community-owned, regenerative Welsh seafood farm

With its ‘underwater gardens’ echoing a tradition of sustainably harvesting the local waters, we go beneath the waves at a community-owned, regenerative Welsh seafood farm

When Francois Beyers first pitched the concept of 3D ocean farming to the Welsh regulators, he had to sketch it on napkins. 

Today the seafood farm is much more than a drawing, but if you walked along the Welsh coastal path near St David’s, all you’d see is a line of buoys. As Beyers puts it: “It’s what’s below that’s important.”

Thick tussles of lustrous seaweed suspend from the buoys, mussels cling to its furry connective ropes and dangling Chinese lantern-esque nets are filled with oysters and scallops. 

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“It’s like an underwater garden,” says Beyers, co-founder of the community-owned regenerative ocean farm, Câr-y-Môr. The 3-hectare site is part of a fledgling sector, one of 12 farms in the UK, which key players believe could boost ocean biodiversity, produce sustainable agricultural fertiliser and provide year-round employment in areas that have traditionally been dependent on tourism. 

Created in 2020 by Beyers and six family members, including his father-in-law – an ex-shellfish farmer – the motivation is apparent in the name, which is Welsh for “for the love of the sea”. 

But it could have all been different for Beyers, a software developer and South African native. He was on the verge of returning home to be closer to the sea when he started exploring how ocean farming could enable him to make a living by the coast. When his father-in-law stumbled upon the perfect site, two abandoned mussel farms in Pembrokeshire, concept became reality. 

Its ‘underwater gardens’ echo a tradition of sustainably harvesting the local waters: we dive into Wales’ underwater farming revolution

Drone shot of Câr-y-Môr, which is on the site of abandoned mussel farms. Image: Scott Chalmers

Ocean farming comes from the technical term ‘integrated multi-trophic aquaculture’, which means a mixture of different seaweed and shellfish species growing together to mutually benefit each other. But it’s not just a way of growing food with little human input, it also creates ocean habitat. 

“You’re creating a breeding ground for marine animals,” explains Beyers who adds that the site has seen more gannets diving, porpoises and seals – to name a few – since before the farm was established.

Ocean farms like Câr-y-Môr, notes Ross Brown – environmental research fellow at the University of Exeter – have substantial conservation benefits.

Setting up a seaweed farm creates an exclusion zone so fishermen can’t trawl it

“Setting up a seaweed farm creates an exclusion zone so fishermen can’t trawl it,” explains Brown, who has been conducting experiments on the impacts of seaweed and shellfish farms across the UK. 

Brown believes a thriving ocean farming industry could provide solutions to the UK’s fish stock, which is in “a deeply troubling state” according to a report that found half of the key populations to be overfished. “It would create stepping stones where we have safe havens for fish and other organisms,” he adds. 

But UK regulators have adopted a cautious approach, note Brown and Beyers, making it difficult for businesses like Câr-y-Môr to obtain licenses. “It’s been a tough old slog,” says Beyers, whose aim is to change the legislation to make it easier for others to start ocean farms. 

Francois Beyers with his children, photographed by Arthur Neumeier

Despite navigating uncharted territories, the business now has 14 full-time employees, and 300 community members, of which nearly 100 have invested in the community-benefit society. For member and funding manager Tracey Gilbert-Falconer, the model brings expertise but most importantly, buy-in from the tight-knit local community. 

“You need to work with the community than forcing yourself in,” she observes. 

And Câr-y-Môr is poised to double its workforce in 2024 thanks to a Defra grant of £1.1 million to promote and develop the Welsh seafood industry as part of the UK Seafood Fund Infrastructure Scheme. This will go towards building a processing hub, set to be operational in April, to produce agricultural fertiliser from seaweed. 

Full of mineral nutrients and phosphorous from the ocean, seaweed use in farming is nothing new, as Gilbert-Falconer notes: “Farmers in Pembrokeshire talk about their grandad going down to the sea and throwing [seaweed] on their farms.” 

But as the war in Ukraine has caused the price of chemical fertiliser to soar, and the sector tries to reduce its environmental impact – of which synthetic fertiliser contributes 5% of total UK emissions – farmers and government are increasingly looking to seaweed. 

Harvesting seaweed at Câr-y-Môr in Pembrokeshire. Image: Arthur Neumeier

The new hub will have capacity to make 65,000 litres of sustainable fertiliser annually with the potential to cover 13,000 acres of farmland. 

But to feed the processing hub, generate profit and reduce their dependency on grants, the co-op needs to increase the ocean farm size from three to 13 hectares. If they obtain licences, Beyers says they should break even in 18 months. 

For now, Beyers reflects on a “humbling” three years but revels in the potential uses of seaweed, from construction material to clothing.  

“I haven’t seen the limit yet,” he smiles.

Main image: the Câr-y-Môr team, photographed by Christina Williams

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